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Project on Government Oversight

POGO Letter to DOE Secretary Bodman raising safety concerns

The Honorable Samuel W. Bodman
Secretary of Energy
U.S. Department of Energy
Washington , DC 20585


Dear Secretary Bodman,

The Project on Government Oversight ( POGO ) is an independent non-profit that investigates and exposes corruption and other misconduct in order to achieve a more accountable federal government.  We neither support nor oppose the reorganization of the Office of Environment, Safety and Health (ES&H) and the Office of Security and Safety Performance Assurance (SSA) into the Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS), but it does appear to be a distraction from the real problem: the lack of qualified safety personnel, and inadequate support from DOE for the few safety personnel who are qualified. This deteriorating situation will not be solved by reorganizing the deck chairs in Washington.

In addition to our extensive work on security at the nuclear weapons complex, POGO has spent a fair amount of time evaluating safety issues at Los Alamos as a case study on how DOE’s safety system operates. Frankly, POGO has found that the system has failed. There has been one safety debacle after another. A few recent examples include:

  • A post-doctoral student was shot in the eye with a laser.
  • Two workers were forced to work in an area where acid was burning their lungs.
  • A hose came loose in a glove box at TA-55, seriously contaminating several workers with highly carcinogenic plutonium.
  • A worker was contaminated with americium, and went on to contaminate houses and cars in four states – costing over one million dollars to clean up.
  • Sprinkler heads in the fire suppression system in the TA-55 plutonium facility had been painted over and were nonfunctional, causing the facility to be shut down for over a month, and costing $6 million dollars to be replaced.  In addition, DOE discovered that the contractor, the University of California , had never tested the fire hoses at TA-55. 

Despite this track record, only a portion of which we have listed here, DOE has initiated a pilot program to hand over safety oversight to the new contractor – the University of California/Bechtel – allowing it to police itself. Keep in mind, the University of California was responsible for all of the above accidents, and Bechtel was one of the prime contractors on the troubled Big Dig in Boston .

Since the new contractor took over at Los Alamos a few weeks ago, there has already been a crane accident in which two workers were injured. One man’s pelvis and chest were crushed, and his legs broken – he had to be medivac-ed to Denver – and the other man’s legs were broken. DOE stepped aside and for the first time allowed the contractor to investigate itself.

The problem is clear: the lack of qualified safety basis experts in the Site Offices; the fact that DOE does not verify whether the safety directions created by the federal DOE overseers have been implemented by the contractor; and the decision-makers at DOE Headquarters do not support their people in the field when there is a conflict between the contractor and DOE. For instance, Headquarters assured the Los Alamos site office that it would get additional staff to work on safety verification.  However, that additional staff was never provided. Furthermore, former Los Alamos safety director Chris Steele was transferred because of complaints from the contractor, who said he was being too tough on them. The solution is not self-policing by the contractor: it is to have a sufficient number of adequately-qualified safety experts, and the support for those experts from DOE Headquarters. Oversight of contractors is an inherently governmental function.

While POGO believes that the reorganization of ES&H and SSA detracts from the far more pressing problems mentioned above, should the reorganization occur, it raises two significant issues. The first is that, while ES&H has been headed by a political appointee at the Assistant Secretary level, the newly formed HSS will be lead by a career professional. While this might appear to be a demotion of the stature of that office, in reality over the past three DOE administrations, the Assistant Secretary of ES&H has not been considered a top management position with regular contact with the Secretary, while the Director of SSA has had more regular contact with the Secretaries of Energy.  POGO would hope that in the future, the new Director of HSS would enjoy this level of access so that safety and security concerns receive their due attention.

The second issue is that the reorganization may undermine the work of the independent Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board (DNFSB). POGO believes that the DNFSB has done a reasonably strong job as an independent oversight body in the safety area, although it continues to need enforcement authority. In fact, in POGO ’s 2001 report, U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Security at Risk, we recommended that the DNFSB be a model for the independent security oversight function currently housed in SSA and proposed to be a part of HSS.  This system would only work, however, if that office were given enforcement power.

Thank you for considering our comments. We would be happy to discuss any of our findings with you.

Sincerely,


Danielle Brian
Executive Director

cc: Glenn Podonsky, Director Office of  Security and Safety Performance Assurance
 

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